Blog: Health researchers make breakthrough on strokes

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Pam Linn

On the day my older sister suffered a stroke years ago, she was preparing to leave her bank when she started to feel weakness in her leg and arm. The bank security guard, who knew her, helped her to her car and she drove herself the few blocks home. Then she started cleaning her house: obsessive-compulsive disorder on steroids. It was hours before she got to the hospital, just a few minutes away, time that we now know makes a huge difference in recovery. 

We all know more than we did then about the symptoms. In recent years, doctors have spread the word that getting medical intervention is key during the first two hours or so of a stroke in order to save precious neurons before they die for lack of oxygen, leaving patients with major impairment of speech, memory and muscle. What they haven’t been telling us is that even if one makes it to the hospital, delays can use up that precious time. 

Ischemic stroke, caused by a blood clot, accounts for 70 percent of strokes and can be treated with a drug that breaks up clots. Before administering the drug, however, doctors must order a scan to make sure the stroke isn’t hemorrhagic. Because the imaging often uses up the time window in which the drug will work, few patients benefit. Another compounding problem is that many stroke victims drive themselves to the hospital instead of calling an ambulance, according to the American Stroke Association (ASA). 

Now, a new breakthrough derived from studies on lab rats is giving hope to doctors even though human trials may be years away. In the July/August issue of Scientific American Mind, Southern California neurologist Stephani Sutherland describes studies that mimic strokes in rats. It turns out that gently stroking the animal’s whiskers seems to stimulate rerouting of blood flow that saves neurons, according to the study, but only if done immediately after the event. After a couple of hours, exciting the senses may have a deleterious effect. 

Sutherland writes that in Ron D. Frostig’s Irvine laboratory, rats were saved from brain damage after stroke when neuroscientists simply touched their whiskers or played sounds in their ears. It’s a low-tech, inexpensive treatment that could be dispensed immediately, anywhere, by anyone. 

Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death nationally and the most common cause of long-term disability. The ASA mnemonic FAST spells out: Face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty? Time to call 911. Easy to remember, but the new information may prove to be more effective. 

While one waits for the ambulance, stroking the patient’s face, lips, the fingers, talking or singing into the ear, doing anything to stimulate the brain—specifically the sensory cortex— may increase the flow of oxygenated blood. If nothing else, it may comfort the afflicted. 

My sister received therapy after the fact and recovered near-normal speech. However, she is often frustrated by a mental disconnect when she can’t readily access a word, a memory or answer a question. I guess those pesky neurons just didn’t recover completely. For someone with a stratospheric I.Q., this must be unbearable. 

Our mother was already in the hospital for repair of a hip fracture when she apparently suffered a mild stroke. The doctors never admitted this, but we all noticed that she was never quite the same. Although she had none of the classic stroke symptoms, her personality was forever changed. Where she had been the proverbial hog on ice, she became dependent, her quick wit replaced by humorless frailty. If only we had known the possibilities that may become common practice one day; I might have stroked her slender hands, her still unwrinkled brow or cheek. 

That gentle touch could have made a difference far beyond simple comfort. Even if scientists can’t replicate the rat studies on primates, they now have new insight into an old and intractable problem. So if you are nearby and if the time is right, it’s worth a try. And, like chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt.